Friday, 30 July 2010

30 July 2010

Do you think David Cameron might be a secret revolutionary? I know he calls himself a Conservative (albeit a “liberal Conservative”), but I’m beginning to wonder whether beneath that fresh-scrubbed exterior, there beats a truly revolutionary heart.

Consider the following evidence: he’s put together a government coalition unlike anything Britain has seen for more than half a century. He’s proposing the biggest cuts in government spending in modern British political history. He’s proposing major changes to the way English schools are run; an overhaul of the way the National Health Service is organised in England; reform of the way the police are organised; and changes to the way we elect members of the Westminster parliament that would almost certainly change the shape of UK politics for generations to come.

Overseas, he’s told President Obama he wants a different kind of relationship with Washington; he’s started wooing Turkey and India – and upset Israel and Pakistan in the process.

There’s more, but that’s probably enough for now. (This morning, there’s news that Iain Duncan Smith wants to tear up the benefits system and start again.) My mind starts spinning just thinking about it all. Is this what voters expected when they went to the polls last May?

And one more question: how much of it will actually happen? Because, let us not forget, he needs parliamentary approval for each and every one of his proposals – and there are already rumblings of discontent.

The Labour opposition are planning to vote against his idea of a referendum next May on voting reform. (Which is deliciously paradoxical, you might think, given that before the election, Labour were the only party to come out in favour of the system that Mr Cameron and his Lib Dem colleagues are now proposing.) A few dozen of his own MPs are threatening to join them.

Tory backbenchers aren’t wildly enthusiastic about his NHS reforms, nor about his scrapping of the schools building programme if it means that school improvements in their own constituencies now won’t happen. And there’s a nasty row brewing over defence cuts as well. Stand by for a scaled-back Trident nuclear weapons programme and squeals of anger from the defence lobby.

The Lib Dems are finding it hard to swallow the proposed increase in value added tax rates, nor do they like all Mr Cameron’s talk of capping immigration from outside the EU. (Business leaders don’t seem to like it much either – they’re worrying about where they’re going to get all their IT people from.) Conservative backbenchers are equally dubious about increasing capital gains tax, which would hit owners of second homes, most of whom probably vote Tory.

So how many MPs actually share the Cameroonian revolutionary vision? Is he leading his troops bravely into battle, shaking up a country that needs an injection of new vigour after 13 years of Labour rule? Or as he turns around and looks behind him, will he find sullen foot soldiers, reluctant to budge, unconvinced that these are battles they want to fight?

I have to admit that there are times when I feel I need a mirror to make sense of it all, because everything is beginning to look back-to-front.

Is Labour really accusing the Tories of being soft on immigration as they loosen the restrictions on foreign students? Soft on terrorism because they’ve scrapped the stop-and-search provisions of the Terrorism Act? Soft on crime because Ken Clarke is wondering whether short prison sentences are a good idea and Theresa May is about to get rid of ASBOs?

So is there a danger than Mr Cameron is trying to do too much too quickly? We know that he doesn’t want his government to acquire a reputation as a slasher of government spending and little else. We also know that he believes governments need to act quickly if they hope to make real changes.

But here’s the thing. Has he bothered to explain to his own party what he’s doing? Has he considered that they may not be as impressed with his ambitious agenda as his Lib Dem deputy, Nick Clegg? And what does he intend to do when one or more of his reform proposals gets bogged down in the House of Commons?

History teaches us that revolutions often turn in on themselves. Sometimes they devour themselves with ugly consequences. If over the next few months there’s growing unrest among public sector workers as thousands of jobs are cut – and if the economy splutters to a stand-still, or tips back into recession – how much appetite for revolution will Mr Cameron’s followers still have?

He has set himself a mighty task – and if he does pull it off, it’s just possible that he may earn himself a place in the history books as a more radical prime minister even than Margaret Thatcher. But there’s still a long way to go …

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